Selecting a practice area is probably the most important factor affecting an attorney’s long-term career success, and is something law school often fails to prepare you for. Choose the right practice area, and you are best positioned to enjoy job security, career satisfaction, and overall long-term success. Choose incorrectly, and you will likely face a continual struggle for professional fulfillment.
When making this decision, work through two primary considerations:
- What interests you?
- How marketable is the practice area long-term?
Unfortunately, these two considerations are fluid and not always aligned. Five steps will prepare and inform you about when and why compromises concerning your interests and long-term plan may need to be made when facing this crucial decision.
1. Know Yourself
It sounds clichéd, but taking time to truly think through and analyze what interests you and where your talents lie will pay high dividends as you embark on your legal career. Different practice areas suit different personalities, both substantively and skillset-wise. Below is a general, high-level summary of the personality traits suited for three broad practice areas:
- Litigators: truly enjoy research, writing, analytical thinking, developing strategies, and advocacy. If you loathed your first-year legal research and writing class (and/or civil procedure), think twice before committing to litigation as your practice area. And, understand a crucial difference between being a trial attorney, where thinking on your feet and being in a courtroom is the norm (i.e., prosecutors, public defenders, smaller cases in state courts), and a big firm litigator, where courtroom time is the exception, and cases are predominately fought and settled through extensive discovery and brief writing. A big firm litigator may spend an entire career without ever going to trial, and for many, that suits them just fine.
- Corporate/transactional lawyers: have a strong attention to detail, are interested in business and commercial matters, are comfortable drafting and interpreting contracts, and enjoy the rush of closing a deal. Corporate lawyers tend to dislike their first-year legal writing class and instead enjoy the structure and predictability of reviewing and drafting contracts. Corporate/transactional law has many subsets (e.g., finance, franchise, real estate, technology transactions, etc.), but the overall personality traits for those who enjoy this work are similar. It can be difficult to gain exposure to corporate law during law school; if you felt that traditional law school curriculum never really comported with your interests or personality, or allowed you to think like a business person, corporate/transactional law may be your ideal practice area.
- Regulatory lawyers: enjoy statutory interpretation, becoming an expert within a particular regulatory scheme, and developing a diverse skillset to include providing advice and handling administrative hearings. Examples of regulatory practices include: antitrust, banking, communications, employee benefits, energy, environmental, food and drug law, health care, securities, and tax. Each of these areas has a corresponding federal agency employing lawyers and before which lawyers practice. Washington, D.C. tends to be the epicenter for regulatory lawyers because most federal agencies are headquartered in D.C., but regulatory law also is practiced on the state level.
Warning: Do not become the fifth-year litigator who realizes that he/she hates research, writing, and confrontation and instead wants to work with contracts. These are things you can and should know about yourself in law school, so take the time to appreciate how your strengths, weaknesses, talents, and interests fit into your overall practice area decision.
2. Understand the Role of Supply and Demand
Now more than ever, the market plays a significant role in determining who is hiring, what they are hiring for, and how long that job will last. Long gone are the days when simply having a law degree meant guaranteed job security at a law firm. Employers are ever more discerning on credentials, expertise, and value. What this means when selecting a practice area is: stand apart, choose the path less traveled, be the purple unicorn. How to do this? You need to understand where market demand is high or emerging (i.e., who is hiring and for what), and where supply (i.e., number of lawyers practicing in this area) is low. Take these two contrasting examples:
Litigation: because law schools groom litigators, civil litigation tends to be the default practice area for the bulk of law school graduates. This has resulted in an abundance of litigators in every major city. In other words, supply is high. Although most law firms have litigation departments, the supply still outpaces hiring demand. This has made civil litigation among the most competitive practice areas out there, leaving middle-of-the-road law school graduates who aspire to become litigators in a big firm with few options.
ERISA: ever heard of it? Exactly. ERISA stands for The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, and it is a real practice area that can be found in big law, boutiques, solo offices, the government, and in-house at a company. ERISA attorneys develop litigation, counseling, regulatory, and transactional skills with an expertise in this complex federal law that sets minimum standards for pension and health plans. This may not sound like the most exciting practice area to select, but the number of people who practice this specialty is small, and demand for ERISA attorneys is continual. In other words, supply and demand indicators favor ERISA attorneys, making it a less competitive and more credential-forgiving practice area with long-term options and job security.
This is not to say you should ditch your litigation aspirations and become an ERISA attorney. Rather, take the time to research your market and understand which industries are driving business and what type of legal services they will need. Stay ahead of market trends and disruptors; it is often in these corners that the most exciting opportunities are found. As a tip, current hot areas include financial services, health care, privacy, data security, and technology-related transactions. But there are more and this is always evolving.
3. Choose Early and Commit
When I say choose early, I mean law school (if not earlier). Employers are attracted to candidates who have some demonstrated interest in a particular practice area whether that interest is shown through prior work experience, extern/internships during law school, or even a concentration in classwork. Your ability to tell a credible story―through your resume and while interviewing―to a potential employer about why you want to become an [insert practice area]lawyer leads the employer to think that you (a) have your act together and know who you are, and (b) are unlikely to jump ship in the near term because you are specifically choosing that employer for the opportunity to join and excel in its [insert practice area]group. Employers want to hire efficiently and smartly and in so doing, the candidate who has a demonstrated interest in what the employer is hiring for will win out over the person whose resume reads like an unfocused process of elimination.
Once you choose, commit. In our current world of hyper-specialization, it is increasingly difficult for attorneys to retool, or change practice areas, after their first or second year practicing. Identifying your practice area early and committing to it sets you on a course where you can develop an expertise that will help you build your professional profile within that area/industry. In turn, this early-onset practice area selection acts as a multiplier of options as your career progresses (for example, developing clients, moving in-house, consulting).
4. Clients Anyone?
The number one driver for creating career options and job security when practicing law in a firm is your ability to develop business. This stands true whether you are in a global mega-firm, small local practice or boutique environment. (The single environment that does not come into play is the government; oddly, it has an indirect effect for practicing in-house at a company.) It should not come as a surprise that it is easier to develop clients in certain practice areas and geographies than others. So, if your long-term play is to become a law firm partner or hang out your shingle, understand how your practice area selection affects your potential client base, and whether it is the sort you can attract and develop into meaningful client relationships.
5. Consider Your Long-Term Personal Goals
This is the culminating question: how will the practice area you choose at the beginning of your career set you up for personal and professional success 10 years down the road? While the thought of where you will be a decade from now may seem overwhelming, this is a very real question to consider in our quick-moving world, where multiple job changes throughout a career are the norm. Work with the information you have now and think through your personal goals relating to finances, family, geography, work environment, and the importance of status/prestige/responsibility. For better or worse, the practice area you choose at the beginning of your career will set you on a path affecting each of these goals; so take the time now to understand if it is an area that lends itself well to sending your children to private school, moving home to Oklahoma, or working in-house at a tech company should those be your aspirations. Revisit your goals annually as your life and career evolve, and take an honest look at whether you are on the right path to achieving your objectives. If not, pivot and recalibrate.
As a young lawyer who has yet to truly experience what it means to practice law, selecting a practice area can be daunting. But remember, you currently have―or can learn through thoughtful research and conversations―the information you need to make this crucial decision. Spend time now to think through these five tips so that you to choose your practice area rather than it choosing you.
About the Author
Justine Donahue is a former practicing attorney who is now a legal recruiter with Garrison & Sisson in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.